Set in late-’70s Boston, the ferocious, funny and relentless “Free Fire” places a group of shady characters in a deserted warehouse for the sale of a few cases of machine guns. A personal dispute between two of the least important people in the deal, guys just there to move boxes, quickly escalates from yelling to fists to handguns to everyone there in a full-fledged shootout.
Once the shooting starts, the movie becomes a nostop battle. Amid the chaos, eventually one low-level hoodlum yells out that he can’t remember which side he’s on.
“Free Fire” is directed by Ben Wheatley, who co-wrote and edited the film with his wife, Amy Jump. The partnership between the two British filmmakers, who most recently gave us “High-Rise,” may be among the most exhilarating and genuinely collaborative in contemporary movies.
Their work has torn fearlessly through genres, combining a fan’s enthusiasm with a connoisseur’s eye. Following the disorienting gut-punches of “Kill List,” the road trip serial killer rom-com of “Sightseers,” the psychedelic historical simplicity of “A Field in England” and the sprawling dystopian satire of “High-Rise,” “Free Fire” is a savagely funny and viciously precise distillation of one of the pair’s favorite themes:
Men are idiots.
This is not a novel notion, but “Free Fire” sets out the ways men can trip over themselves, from outright ego, lazy obliviousness, posturing projection, deluding rationalizations and on down the line. In smartly examining the foibles and fragility of the male psyche, Wheatley and Jump also make the case for self-awareness and understanding.
The cast members attack their roles with palpable glee, a sense of enthusiastic exaggeration to match the outrageous goings-on. Michael Smiley and Cillian Murphy play IRA operatives who are the closest the film comes to having heroes; they just want to get the deal done and move on. Sharlto Copley relishes the eccentricities of his blowhard half-cracked crime lord while Sam Riley, Noah Taylor, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay and Enzo Cilenti make the most of it as they are caught in the crossire.
Brie Larson and Armie Hammer play fixers with no real stake in things. She becomes the glue holding it all together, and her performance unveils something thorny and dangerous beneath a placidly positive exterior. Asked if she’s with the FBI, her character Justine responds with the film’s signature line, “I’m IIFM — In it for Myself.”